Preached January 15, 2012
St. Mark 1:1–11
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
We continue the observance of the season of Epiphany, the showing forth of our Lord Jesus Christ, with a lesson from the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Mark. Consider again the very first verse: Mark 1:1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; Now the Gospel is the Good News of Jesus Christ, the message of salvation to all mankind, but this message is not good news until it is announced, so St. Mark begins immediately with the Good News. When I say immediately, I am pointing to the fact that St. Mark does not tell anything at all about the genealogy of Christ, about the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth before the birth of Christ, about the birth of Christ, or about the encounter between Jesus and the doctors of the law in the Temple when He was 12. For St. Mark, all of that is unnecessary baggage; what is important is the story of Jesus’ public life, what He said and did. For this reason, he plunges right in with the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river by John the Baptist.
In Eastern Orthodoxy, much more frequently than in Western Christianity, John the Baptist is described as the Forerunner. St. Mark says, As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, evidently referring to two of the ancient prophets:
Isaiah 40:3 The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Malachi 3:1 Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.
The role of the Forerunner is that of a herald, to announce the coming of the one who comes after him. Even today in the court of law, the bailiff always precedes the judge into the court and announces his coming with an “all rise;” the bailiff is serving as the herald or forerunner for the judge in order that proper respect may be given to the important person that is coming. In the same manner, the Lord God had said that he would sent a messenger, a forerunner, before His way when He came into the world. St. John Baptist is the Forerunner of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But what kind of messenger did the Lord God send? A slick ambassador in pretty court dress to charm the Sanhedrin? Not quite! Mark 1:3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. It was more like the Lord had sent a mad man. John the Baptist did not live a conventional life in any way whatsoever. He lived rough, in the wild, in an uninhabited area near the Jordan river. We read a little later that he dressed in animal skins and ate locust and wild honey. The wild honey part sounds pretty good — maybe — but most of us would readily take a pass on the rest of John the Baptist’s life style. Our reaction today is not too different from the reaction of most people of his day; John was a spectacle, a wild man.
But John was a preacher! He preached as did the prophets of long before. He preached the need for repentance, the need to turn to the Lord for forgiveness of sins. He attacked the compromises of the religious establishment of his day, the things that made it easier for them to maintain their position under the Roman government while appearing to be faithful Jews, at least externally. John was an attraction in the wilderness, even to those whom he threatened, because he fascinated them. We read in Mark 1:5 And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
John preached the need for repentance, for turning back to the faith of Israel, and he offered baptism in the river Jordan for the forgiveness of sins. The people of Israel recognized in John the Baptist an extraordinary prophet, and remember that there had not been a prophet in the land for 400 years at that time. This was indeed something to be excited about!
John performed the function of the Forerunner as it is recorded in Mark 1:7-8 And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. 8 I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost. The way these words are written, it is clear that St. John Baptist did not know of whom he was speaking. He simply says, There cometh one mightier than I but he cannot name this Person; he simply knows that He is coming. It is not the function of the herald to know the details; only to make the announcement. John is saying to the excited crowd who are pretty amazed to have a great prophet in their midst, There is someone much more important coming. While I do a small thing in baptizing you with water, He will do a much greater thing when He baptizes you with the Holy Ghost and with fire. We can well imagine that this would have something of a confusing effect on the crowd. Some would say, “why is he saying that?” while others simply would completely discount it. I think it would puzzle and disconcert them all, however. Why would their great prophet put himself down like that?
St. Mark, who seems to be the very soul of brevity, then says, Mark 1:9 And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. Well, yes, it did come to pass. We know from the other Gospel accounts that there was a bit of discussion between Jesus and John the Baptist about the matter, but in the end, John did in fact baptize Jesus, just as St. Mark says. You really wonder if St. Mark had to purchase his words by the letter!
It is at this point that we finally get to the real crux of the matter as regards the Epiphany of our Lord, the theophany that occurred as Jesus came up out of the water following John’s baptism. We read in Mark 1:10-11 10 And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: 11 And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Jesus Himself has done nothing at all other than to submit to John’s baptism, but here we have the testimony of the Father Himself, speaking for the Son, declaring to all present the identity of Jesus as the Son of God while the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove descends directly upon Him.. What could be more powerful than that? All present must have surely been awestruck at what had happened. How could they do anything other than believe? With testimony straight from Heaven itself, who would dare to say, “I don’t think so”?
We would think that this should have set Jerusalem on fire with people wanting to follow Jesus. Many, if not most, of the people present when Jesus was baptized were from Jerusalem in all likelihood, and when they returned home, surely they told people what they had seen. What happened? Imagine that this very event happened this afternoon in your neighborhood, with just you and your neighbors present to see it. You would all tell your friends, but what would happen then? Would they believe you? No doubt some of them would, but would they all? If they are your friends, they would all be polite and say, “Oh, how interesting,” but would they take your witness as a basis for a life changing action? I think you know the answer. Even the testimony of God the Father and the Holy Ghost is not sufficient for those who chose not to believe.
The great faith and insight of St. John Baptist was given to him in order that he might be able to fulfill his role as the Forerunner of Jesus Christ. Our Epistle lesson describes the many gifts of faith given to each of us, even to the present day, that we too should be exercising to the glory of God and the furtherance of His Kingdom here on earth. In all of them, we are reminded that we are to be like St. John Baptist, simple, self–effacing, not seeking to exalt ourselves, but rather to prefer others instead. We know far more about our own sins than we can possibly know about for anyone else, and that familiarity with our own sins should make us easily see why others are always to be preferred. We are most certainly not to focus our attention on matters that are beyond our scope, but rather are to attend to the lowest of the affairs of men, seeing them as our proper place. Each of us is called with a duty no less important than that of St. John Baptist, because each of us, including St. John Baptist, is a part of the Body of Christ, the Church. Even though our roles seem small compared to his, we are part of the same Body and therefore one in Christ.
Our Lord Jesus continues to show forth His glory, day by day in the world, giving us new cause to believe every day. The Epiphanies of our Lord are not something that were completed some 2000 years ago, but they are on going in our lives today, if we will but be alert to them. The world at large continues to reject Jesus, but for those who see with the eyes of faith, He is there everyday in new forms and places in our lives.
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.